(Reuters) - Aston Villa started the season prioritising a top-four Premier League finish but inspiring performances under manager Unai Emery have catapulted them to third and within reach of title rivals and his former club Arsenal who they host on Saturday.
Emery has brought European football back to Villa Park after finishing seventh last year but they have shown no signs of Thursday night hangovers after Conference League games, losing just once in the top flight in their last 11 matches.
In that run, they have swatted aside Chelsea and early pacesetters Tottenham Hotspur while Wednesday's 1-0 win over Manchester City saw Emery beat old rival Pep Guardiola for the first time and drop the champions to fourth.
Remarkably, a dominant Villa side restricted City to just two shots at Villa Park, a ground which has been transformed into a fortress where they have won 14 on the trot to equal a club record that has stood for 92 years.
When asked if Villa were genuine title contenders, Guardiola said: "Yes, definitely, (because) of the way they are playing.
"You see the physicality, the tempo, the speed, the bench, the organisation from Unai in the set pieces, the high pressing, the middle block, how incredibly they defend in the back four, a good goalkeeper (Emiliano Martinez) - absolutely!"
The last time Villa won 10 games at this stage of the season, they went on to lift their last league title in 1980-81. But Emery struck a cautious tone and said it was too early to discuss their title credentials.
"There are seven teams who are contenders more than us. We are (at) matchday 15, we play matchday 16 on Saturday against Arsenal and we are going to focus on it," the Spaniard said.
"We are happy to be third but to stay there, it is very, very difficult."
Emery does not have fond memories of Arsenal, a club he failed to reinvigorate during his ill-fated spell in north London.
But the man who replaced him, fellow Spaniard Mikel Arteta, has managed to not only transform Arsenal into a Champions League club again but has also made them title contenders for a second season running.
Arteta got the better of Emery in the same fixture last season, but when the Villa boss looks at the away team dugout this time he will not see his compatriot who will be serving a touchline ban following his third booking of the season.
Meanwhile, Guardiola's City side have come through a punishing run of four games with just three points and no wins although they might get some respite on Sunday at promoted Luton Town who have won only two league games this season.
Manchester United host Bournemouth after Crystal Palace seek their first win over second-placed visitors Liverpool in six years in Saturday's early kickoff.
Injury-hit Spurs have seen the brakes slammed on their title charge with no wins in their last four games but manager Ange Postecoglou's brave decision to trust the process and stick to his attacking style no matter the cost has bolstered morale.
But a stern test awaits on Sunday when they host Newcastle United in a fixture that has seen lots of goals in recent years.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris)